“Write in the light, be angry and revolt”: 7 Arab women writers who became icons of feminism

Wednesday 13 March 201912:00 am

The Lebanese intellectual Gibran Khalil Gibran was right when he said: "Those who write in ink are not like those who write with the blood of the heart." And Arab feminist writers are the greatest example of that. In our male-dominated societies, surrounded by stereotypes, especially in the presence of a dividing wall between women and men, Arab women are struggling to prove themselves and make their way to independence and escape from their painful reality to a world that does not judge on the basis of sex. While women do not have the physical weapons to impose their power on society, they have a weapon of another kind: the pen through which revolutions start and societies change.

The ink of pain

The best writing is borne out of pain and suffering. From Aisha Taymour and Huda Shaarawi to Mona Eltahawy, Joumana Haddad and Nawal El Saadawi, many women became involved in feminist thought and sought to write in order to heal and to introduce us to their boundless dreams and ambitions. Their pens became a weapon against the law of the jungle and a cri de coeur in the face of injustice. On the occasion of International Women's Day, the following are the most prominent Arab feminists who have broken barriers in their distinctive work and are a source of inspiration for many women in our societies.

Aisha al-Taymour

Aisha al-Taymour is a symbol of the feminist movement and of women's rebellion since Ottoman times. Aisha was a social activist, poet, and leading novelist of the women's rights movement in the East. Her writings shed a light on the period when many women were deprived of their basic rights. Her most notable work is “A reflective mirror on some matters” published in 1892. In just a few pages, al-Taymour re-interprets verses of the Quran to explain the rights of men and women. It is a bold attempt and is the first of its kind by a Muslim woman. She also addresses marital relations between couples in Egyptian families, trying to diagnose the causes of tension in those relationships. One of the most prominent Quranic verses on which Aisha based her defense of women's rights is: "Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth.” The writer argued that men’s authority over women stems from their ability to preserve and maintain their wealth. From this vantage point, al-Taymour compared what was written in the Qur'an and the reality. She considered her male contemporaries to be devoid of all masculine traits, only bearing the visages of men while remaining blinded by ignorance and misinterpretation of the verses. She argued that guardianship is not really a fixed right but is conditional and is based on men being financially responsible for women, and consequently that guardianship can shift to women if men fail at their duties.

Huda al-Shaarawi

Huda Shaarawi was born in Egypt in the heart of the “harem system" that denied women the right to an education. Although Al-Shaarawi received an education at home, she resented the idea of ​​not being allowed to go to school like her brother. At the age of 13, she was forced to marry her 40-year-old relative, but she did not submit to her fate. The oppression of women prompted her to organize lectures for women for the first time in public. In 1923, this rebellious woman removed the veil outside a train station in Cairo, which encouraged many women to do the same, then opened a girls' school and founded the Egyptian Women's Union. One of the most important works of Huda al-Sharawi in the struggle for equal rights was the publication in 1925 of the feminist magazine “Al Masriya” in French and Arabic in 1937.

Latifa al-Zayat

Through her literary work, Egyptian novelist Latifa al-Zayyat focused on women's issues and concerns. Her novel "The Open Door" (1960), which won the first Naguib Mahfouz Literature Prize in 1996 and was made into a film starring Faten Hamama and Saleh Salim, was her real breakthrough that opened the way for other female writers to write realist novels. Through this fascinating novel, al-Zayat attempted to bring women in from the margins of political and social life, and to make them a key player in them. Hence, the novel is considered one of the most important feminist works and was chosen among the best 100 Arab novels of all time. Al-Zayat tried to expose the double standards of society and its inferior view of women through the heroine of her novel, Laila, who lives in a patriarchal society that considers her  sinful because she is female. The father applies the rules of an unjust society on her, her fiance regards himself as a guardian of women who are purely ornamental creatures, her brother claims to be pro-equality but still considers women to be inferior beings while her first love regards women as merely bodies. Despite all the difficulties she faces, the heroine eventually rises up against the injustices of the patriarchy and the rebellious part of her triumphs over her meek side.

Fatima Mernissi

“Is it impossible to imagine a planet in which the strength of masculinity is actually an overflowing tenderness? Men weeping when we leave them in the morning and greeting us with a poem of Nizar Qabbani at night?” Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi was interested in women's issues and various conceptions in the women’s rights movement, which has dominated most of her writings. Marnissi discussed the patriarchal system that dominates the lives of women and the problem of female sexuality in modern Islamic societies. Among the most prominent books dealing with women's emancipation is "The Rebellion of Women and Islamic Memory", in which she asserted that liberation is primarily a material matter and is non-spiritual, and the book "Beyond the Veil: Sex as Social Engineering", published in 1975, the first part of which investigated the engineering of social relations that contributed to the building of the family in Islamic society and how men assumed the role of leadership. The Moroccan thinker discussed the sexual roles of men and women, noting that the fear of women and shackling them to the image of immoral seductress is due to fear of their sexuality, and asked: "Why do men fear the power of attraction of women? There is a presumption that man can not satisfy a woman sexually, and as a result she will look for other men to satisfy her and thus cause chaos if she has freedom."

Nawal al-Saadawi

“Revolutions do not occur in secret. Revolutions and writing, both of them are not secret acts. Break the lock of the drawer, write in the light, be angry and revolt, do not be silent.” Nawal al-Saadawi, known as the Arab "Simone de Beauvoir", is one of the most daring Arab women writers in the dialectical issues she raises about women, making her one of the region’s foremost feminists. Despite all the threats she faced, al-Saadawi adamantly adhered to her views of masculinity and traditional customs. She was known for fighting female circumcision, which she considered "the product of a patriarchal system." In 1972, her book "Women and Sex" was published, discussing the various assaults on women's bodies, including female genital mutilation. It is noteworthy that this book was one of the reasons for her dismissal from her position at the Ministry of Health. Al-Saadawi is also known for her controversial attitudes towards religion, her anti-hijab stance and perception of it as a form of slavery, asking: “Why must women wear hijab and men don’t, even though both of them have the same lust?”

Ahlam Mosteghanemi

"To write, it is not enough for you to be gifted a notebook and some pens, but someone must hurt you to the point of writing." Ahlam Mosteghanemi is the Arab world’s best-selling author. Her career began with "Memory of the Flesh", a book on political issues and bold ideas that reflected the reality of Algerian women. Mosteghanemi is known for her norm-defying books and for her bold ideas, which depict rebellious women in particular who seek to break the restrictions imposed on them.

Joumana Haddad

"But isn’t writing a death before death, or a form of suicide, before suicide?” The Lebanese journalist Joumana Haddad, was selected more than once as one of the 100 most influential Arab women in the world. Haddad is an activist in the field of women's rights and the founder of Jasad magazine, which specializes in the literature of the body and its arts. Her most important works are: "The Return of Lilith", "Death Will Come and Claim Your Eyes”, “I Killed Scheherezade” ,“Superman is an Arab” and “The Seamstress’s Daughter,” which, according to the publisher, is" a family epic about women born before feminism and yet were it’s champions despite being broken: women who did not find in their breasts milk to nurse their children during the journey of terrible Armenian pain, women raped to save their daughters, women hardened by war, hunger, poverty and humiliation, in Aleppo, in Gaziantep, Jerusalem, the Levant and Beirut."

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